More funding, stronger accountability, better engagement: Memphians give input on the Achievement School District

About 60 Memphians gathered in a Frayser gym Tuesday night for the first event on the State Department of Education’s six-stop listening tour to address what’s working in the Achievement School District and what needs improvement.

Lisa Settle, one of the district’s two interim superintendents, told the audience of about 60 people that state officials were there “because we are looking to make changes.”

“We’re not seeing the growth we would expect to see in schools across the state,” she said.

The achievement district was created seven years ago, and has struggled to turn its schools around. Its third leader left last summer, a study found the program has not improved student achievement, and no new schools will join the district this year school year.

Memphis is home to 28 of the 30 schools in the Achievement School District and would be most impacted by any changes the state decides to make.

During the hour-and-a-half meeting, parents, educators, and school leaders answered questions like, “What should the state’s role be in supporting schools?” and “What should change at your school?”

Answers included “trauma-informed training,” “stronger accountability,” “more funding for facilities,” “better parent engagement,” and a “governing body that includes parents and has input on what happens to the district.”

While state officials didn’t offer specifics about potential changes, they did say they are looking at moving to a four-step model for school turnaround work. That would mean there would be three stages of support for an academically struggling school before it could be taken over by the state as part of the Achievement School District.

“We need input from you, what needs to be true for your students and how we better support students, family, and community,” said Felicia Everson-Tuggle, assistant commissioner of school improvement. She emphasized that the plan won’t be finalized until spring 2020.

Marshaye Smith, a parent of five students at a state-run high school in Frayser, said it felt good to have a space to talk, but she was more interested in what the state does with the feedback.

“We’ve been hearing all this for years, and we’re saying our schools need more,” Smith said. “Are they actually going to use what they write down on paper?”

Vinessa Brown, who’s on the board of the state-run charter school Libertas, said she also wants to see how the state incorporates the input from these meetings into its final plan for the achievement district and school turnaround work in general.

“I want to see more support for our school leaders,” Brown said. “The state needs to visit our schools and understand. We’re out in the ocean on our own.”

Felicia Everson-Tuggle, assistant commissioner of school improvement, addresses the crowd. (Caroline Bauman)

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn wasn’t present Tuesday night but said she will use community input from the meetings to determine how to change the district, which has struggled to turn its low-performing schools around. Schwinn told Chalkbeat before the meetings that she is focused on the district’s structure and whether keeping it an independent district of charter schools is the best strategy.

“We know we need strong teachers and principals, good instructional materials, wraparound supports for kids. But what is the right structure?” Schwinn asked, before referencing a possible move to a more collaborative model with local districts.

The original vision of the achievement district was to remove long-struggling schools from district control. Schwinn’s predecessor started moving toward more collaborative models, namely the Hamilton County Partnership Zone, when the achievement district didn’t show initial academic success.

State leaders will also travel to Nashville, home to two state-run schools, and Jackson and Chattanooga, cities that have schools on the state’s list of struggling schools. (For dates and times, including Wednesday’s second Memphis session, go here).

Holding the first meeting in Frayser was significant, as the northwest Memphis neighborhood is also home to four of the six original schools taken over by the Achievement School District in 2012.

Bobby White, who runs Frayser Community Schools under the district, called the neighborhood “ground zero” for state school reform and said the state needs to consider measuring schools’ successes and failures beyond test scores.

“What we don’t want is for the community to be duped again,” White said. “They need to have true input. Our schools don’t need more change. We need support and consistency.”

Statehouse reporter Marta Aldrich contributed to this report.